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6 Nov 2002 : Column 374continued
We are, however, sympathetic to the suggestion that, for the sake of clarity, the powers should be limited to the occupier of the premises, the keeper of the animals or persons under the control of people in those two categories. In Committee, concerns were expressed about visiting friends or relatives, or people who merely happen to be on the premises and might be dragooned into providing assistance.
We do not have that intention. We are prepared to amend the Bill to make that very clear and to remove the perceived risk of any bystanders or even children being requested or required to assist. Such an amendment also responds to the recommendation of the Joint Committee on Human Rights that, for the sake of
Lords amendments Nos. 17, 27, 40 and 70 deal with the requirement to give assistance to officials carrying out functions under the vaccination, slaughter and serology provisions. They are also designed to allay concerns that the requests for reasonable assistance would not involve unreasonable legal demands on people who are not qualified to help.
The purpose of Lords amendments Nos. 19, 29, 42 and 72 is to ensure that, in the event of a warrant being granted, an inspector will serve a copy on the owner of the premises or, in their absence, leave a copy in a conspicuous place. That ensures that people are aware that the warrant has been issued. Given the weight of argument about the warrant conditions, we tabled the amendments to introduce more safeguards to ensure that the powers are subject to a rigorous and transparent test of reasonableness and that the overall balance of public interest takes proper account of the private interests and rights of the farmer.
That last comment sums up the Government's approach to dealing with warrants and access. We firmly believe that the disease control measures are necessary. Let me emphasise again that we are not talking only about culling, but about vaccination and serology. The need for speed and very clear measures was recognised in the independent reports, and we are responding to that in the Bill. We are trying to reassure people that the powers would be applied only in a reasonable and proportionate way.
I think that the House will agree that we have moved a long way in the amendments to reflect people's concerns. While we are trying to be as reasonable as we can to ensure the appropriate checks and balances and to be open and transparent, we cannot concede on setting down unprecedented legal changes in relation to the issuing of warrants by magistrates, although we have conceded a number of significant changes to reflect hon. Members' concerns.
Mr. Hayes: The Minister is right to say that the Government have accepted a number of the suggestions made in the other place. They have done so in line with the suggestions made by the Joint Committee on Human Rights. It might be useful for the House to hear what the Committee said:
The Minister and the whole House will be aware that the tactics relating to such culling caused immense controversy during the foot and mouth epidemic. Much of the bitterness that ensued is still felt in many rural communities, and many hon. Members will have farmers in their constituencies who still feel the effects very deeply. Given that, and given that the strategy for dealing with these outbreaks should be based on a partnership approach and on collaboration between the industry and the Government, the issue of warrants seems to be a particularly sensitive one. After all, we are talking about going on to someone's property and slaughtering healthy animals, albeitarguablyfor the necessary purpose of preventing the spread of disease.
Mr. Heath: If a farmer had made representations to the district veterinary manager before a warrant was applied for, there would be a duty on the DVM to share that relevant information with a magistratenot, as the Minister said, as a result of a request from the magistrate, but as part of his duty to the court. It would be a matter of disclosure.
Mr. Hayes: In respect of the information being provided, that is the nub of the issue. The difference between us and the Government is that we believe that the farmer affected should have a right to present that information in sworn form to a magistrate. The Minister, however, while trying to be helpful, was suggesting that that would probably take placethat local circumstances would probably mean that the magistrate was aware of the informationwithout
Mrs. Browning : There is another aspect. Farmers remain on-farm in the throes of a foot and mouth outbreak, so their ability to make personal representations is limited. They need a third partyeither a lawyer or an NFU representativeso the right for information to be put before a magistrate is important, as it would be very unusual for farmers to come off-farm to deliver it in person.
Mr. Hayes: That is right. Farmers, in addition to being physically isolated, would be intimidated, bewildered and frightened by such circumstances. Frankly, people who are running a business that is under threat, especially those who live on site, as farmers frequently do, might not be in a position to argue their case as comprehensively or persuasively as they otherwise might. All those considerations reinforce the spirit of partnership that I have recommended in the debate as the prerequisite to an effective national strategy.
Mr. Morley: Before the hon. Gentleman refers to his quote, may I deal with the point made by the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning), which, again, is not unreasonable? Sometimes, it is important that people who are worried or under stress or who perhaps feel that they are too shy to make representations have someone to speak on their behalf, but there is no reason why NFU officials, or even a solicitor, could not make a case to the DVM on behalf of a particular farmer. There is nothing to prevent them from doing that, nor would we want to prevent them from doing it. Indeed, we want to encourage the NFU and other farming organisations to have the information to make such cases on behalf of their members if they so choose.
Mr. Hayes: Once again, the Minister is helpful and co-operative, but he has not gone as far as the Lords would ask him to travel. In that respect, the Lords probably have it right and it may be useful to hear some of what they said. In particular, I shall quote the Minister's noble Friend Baroness Mallalieu, who speaks not only with legal training and expertise, but with a keen interest in and knowledge of countryside matters. Before I do so, I want to refer to the remarks of my noble Friend Baroness Byford.
It is perhaps worth adding that my noble Friend has played an essential role in improving the Bill. The Minister, with his usual grace, will want to acknowledge that a bad Bill has been made better by the work done in the Lords, particularly by Conservative and, though it pains me to say it, Liberal Democrat Members of that House. In the words of Baroness Byford, they have made a bad Bill a better bad Bill. In a number of respects, she played a crucial role in that process. She said that it is surely reasonable that the magistrate should be satisfied that, in the first place, no one is challenging the interpretation that has been put to him by the Ministry, adding:
I accept that a balance has to be struck between the need to control disease urgently and the rights of the owners of animalsthe landowners and farmers. I appreciate that the paramount consideration in the Minister's mindstung as he and his colleagues were by criticisms of their departmentis that they should have the powers to act as swiftly as possible."